Over the weeks leading up to Christmas I’m posting old stories related to Christmas. The first one is called, The Christmas Tree, written in 1799 by Samuel T. Coleridge, Ratzeburg, Germany.
There is a Christmas custom here, which pleased and interested me. The children make little presents to their parents, and to each other; and the parents to the children. For three or four months before Christmas the girls are all busy; and the boys save up their pocket money, to make or purchase these presents. What the present is to be is cautiously kept secret, and the girls have a world of contrivances to conceal it — such as working when they are out on visits, and the others are not with them; getting up in the morning before daylight; and the like. Then, on the evening before Christmas day, one of the parlors is lighted up by the children, into which the parents must not go.
A great yew bough is fastened on the table at a little distance from the wall, a multitude of little tapers [slender candles] are fastened in the bough, but so as not to catch it till they are nearly burnt out, and colored paper hangs and flutters from the twings. Under this bough, the children lay out in great order the presents they mean for their parents, still concealing in their pockets what they intend for each other. Then, the parents are introduced and each presents his little gift, and then brings out the rest one by one from their pockets, and present them with kisses and embraces. Where I witnessed this scene there were eight or nine children, and the eldest daughter and the mother wept aloud for joy and tenderness; and the tears ran down the face of the father, and he clasped all his children so tight to his breast, it seemed as if he did it to stifle the sob that was rising within him. I was very much affected.
The shadow of the bough and its appendages on the wall, and arching over on the ceiling, made a pretty picture, and then the raptures of the very little ones, when at last the twings and their needles began to take fire and snap! — Oh, it was a delight for them! On the next day, in the great parlour, the parents lay out on the table the presents for the children; a scene of more sober joy success, as on this day, after an old custom, the mother says privately to each of her daughters, and the father to his sons, that which he has observed most praiseworthy, and that which was most faulty in their conduct.
Formerly, and still in all the smaller towns and villages throughout North Germany, these presents were sent by all the parents to some one fellow, who in high buskins, a white robe, a mask, and an enormous flax wig, personate Knecht Rupert, the servant Rupert. On Christmas night he goes round to every house, and says that Jesus Christ his master sent him thither, the parents and elder children receive him with great pomp of reverence, while the little ones are most terribly frightened. He then inquires for the children, and, according to the character, which he hears from the parent, he gives them the intended presents, as if they came out of heaven from Jesus Christ. Or, if they should have been bad children, he gives the parents a rod, and in the name of his master recommends them to use it frequently. About seven or eight years old the children are let into the secret, and it is curious to observe how faithfully they keep it.